Farmers and ranchers are challenged to feed a world with more and more people without using more land and while restoring land that has been degraded. They face climate change, including more frequent extreme weather events, like torrential rains and long droughts. They are often also working with soil that has been pushed beyond its limits with heavy fertilizer use and overgrazing, which has limited the soil’s health.
Plant roots are crucial to forming healthy soil, crop resilience in face of variable weather and efficient nutrient use. Roots feed the soil microbial community to energize nutrient cycling and sequester carbon into stable soil fractions. However, the hidden nature of roots and other soil organisms obscures their form and function. So how can roots be effectively managed in perennial systems to promote ecosystem function, and can new crop varieties be bred that have roots that promote plant resilience and soil regeneration?
The Root Phenomics Laboratory advances root biology by developing new technologies for phenotyping, or measuring, root properties. Recently, the lab released RhizoVision Explorer software for automatic measurement of root length and other traits from images.
In addition, the lab has increased the ability to measure physiological root traits like nutrient uptake ability and root respiration, a measure of how much energy roots use. These tools are used to measure differences in many root traits simultaneously among plant species or varieties, often in studies involving hundreds of individual plants.
Using this data, we link how specific root trait values relate to the ability of the plant to uptake nutrients efficiently, to grow more with less input, and to withstand nutrient or water stress.
At the same time, by collaborating with plant breeders at Noble Research Institute, we can identify specific genetic regions associated with these root trait values and use them in applied breeding programs, our ultimate goal.
New lines of research are investigating how roots contribute to the soil microbial community and lead to fractionation of organic matter to soil minerals or particulates. In all our work, we believe that by sharing methods and tools openly, we will maximize our impact on agricultural research by enabling more people to study root and soil processes.